Disclaimer: This article is not about teaching toddlers how to fly fish on the flats… that comes later in life. It’s hard enough taking a toddler spin fishing on the flats for bonefish and redfish. The question is: Can you accept the fact that you will have to give up fly fishing for a little bit in order to create and educate your lifelong fishing companion?
Before my wife and I got proficient at it, the sound of those four words—Flats Fishing with Toddlers—made fishing sound more like a punishment. Like running a skiff in skinny water, you’ve just got to throttle down, trim her up, and ride the lightning. Luckily for you, there’s water ahead to keep you afloat. With some toy dinosaurs and a lot of snacks, I mean a lot of snacks, it can be done and it can be done effectively. The way I have been able to keep my sanity on my skiff is by creating an adventurous environment and culture.
Critical to this is to also keep an open mind while flats fishing, seek out toddler-friendly fish, use any and all equipment necessary to ease my day on the water with the kids, and the embrace the most important word in fishing: patience. All of these are paramount to catching fish and equally keeping the kids happy on the skiff. Understand, this process does not happen overnight and certain fishing styles will have to be sacrificed for a little bit. If your three-year-old has the discipline to keep watch for fins and shadows and can double haul to a tailing permit this article will be of no use to you.
I’m Scott Brown, father to a three-year-old boy named Grayton, who is obsessed with dinosaurs and fishing. I also have a three-month-old girl named Chandler, who at the moment just lies in the bottom of the skiff in her life jacket either smiling or scream crying. Luckily, when I’m on the verge of throwing in the towel because a green triceratops is tangled in my fly line I have my wife, who is equally invested in the culture, to help control the chaos and educate my kids properly.
Recently people have taken notice of my son, who just turned three in April, casting a spinning rod very accurately onto the edge of the mangroves and pulling out mangrove snapper. What’s interesting to us is we never taught him how to cast. What we did do is saturate his world with nothing but rods, reels, lures, flies, and just the angling culture in general.
My kids are involved in the entire angling process from scouting for new spots on maps to tying flies, leaders, and even maintaining our skiff. Currently, my son is obsessed with filling his empty tackle box that my friend Nicholas Calabro gave him. All of this feeds into fostering a new and exciting environment for kids that gets the stoke level skyrocketing and leaves them with the mindset to want to learn.
Dress them like they are pro angler. You don’t have to go to your local outfitters and start raining cash on clothes he’s going to grow out of in the next 6 months but remember they want to look and be like you, so if your wearing your SPF 50 long sleeve with board shorts and your favorite Orvis hat then you best believe little man is rocking it also because in their eyes you are the pro.
Let’s talk tactics… In order to take toddlers flats fishing, you must keep them occupied. Say goodbye to poling your boat around like a ninja while scanning for shadows on the sand because if there’s a toddler on the boat it’s the equivalent to a “screaming hurricane.” Every kid’s attention span is different, but luckily for me I’ve found that if I have live mullet in the bait well or any type of live bait, my three year old will stay out there all day long with an unlimited amount of snacks, of course, as he goes back and forth between fishing and playing with the baitfish. We naturally break out the umbrella and take a break at our favorite sandbar for lunch and let Grayton play and swim. Unfortunately, that means little to no fly-fishing.
Every once in a while, Grayton has the patience to let my wife stand up on the casting platform while I pole the flats. This, however, becomes boring for a toddler who would rather tangle up your fly line or stand right underneath you asking if you can get closer to the mangroves because he has learned it equals easy catching mangrove snapper. You have to pick your battles.
I try to use visual fishing techniques; I love using popping corks with mullet. The popping cork gives your kid something to focus on and it blows their mind when some sort of sea monster drags it to the depths. The mullet tends to stay on top of the water and makes for a spectacular show when they try to evade giant redfish and tarpon.
Target fish that are easily caught. You may not be able to sight fish as effectively for bonefish with a toddler in your boat making a racket so instead change it up and chum those fish in with shrimp and use a 2/0 circle hook with a piece of dead shrimp on a knocker rig. It’s easy for a toddler to cast, they can set the pole down in the rod holder, watch the tip of the rod dance and listen to that drag start screaming! They will absolutely never forget the experience. If your exclusively a fly fisher, you may not like or typically use these tactics but remember it’s not about you, it’s about getting your kid stoked on fishing.
What to bring? Let’s talk toddler packing list and flats fishing equipment. In order to sustain some sort of peace and quite, bring an Ungodly amount of snacks. I’m not talking a bag of chips and some cookies. You need every type of bar, chip, fruit…if it’s edible bring it, because like a tarpon cruising the flats in the keys you never know what fly is going to make or break it. With toddlers it’s the exact same thing, you can never have enough snacks or enough variety of snacks. Yeah, they have their “go-tos,” but sometimes that’s not enough. Sometimes your kid is having a mental break down over you not opening the live well so he can see the mullet you pulled in with the cast net, so play it safe and break out that ice cream bar out of the cooler… chances are it could save the day. Speaking of saving the day, no body outranks officer safety.
First thing I thought about when I started taking Grayton on the skiff is how can I make my skiff safer. Wear your emergency shut off leash; you may survive the fall out of the boat but your toddler will not if the vessel continues underway with no one at the helm and crashes. Invest in a comfortable life jacket and make sure your toddler is wearing it properly when underway or fishing in deeper low visibility waters with a current. When we fish the crystal clear flats in the keys, my three-year-old does not wear a life jacket. My wife and I are usually right near him and it’s typically crystal clear and only 1-2 ft deep. He will be doing more walking than swimming if he decides to jump out while staked or anchored.
A more important note is if you are a weak swimmer or out of shape and aren’t confident you can save your kid in the maritime environment; you should consider sticking to shore… it’s not worth the risk. Just use sound judgment and abide by your state’s watercraft laws and you will be fine.
Trolling motor… go buy one. You need two adults in the skiff if you want to push pole because either your toddler is trying to get up on the poling platform with you or they are going overboard to swim with the fish. The trolling motor gives you the ability to be almost equally as stealthy in shallow water and allows you to teach and supervise your kid while maneuvering the boat in shallow water. A power pole also makes fishing with toddlers a lot easier since you can stake your boat with the push of a button while maintaining attention on your kids.
Patience and positive reinforcement has to be the most important tool you could use on the skiff and that is why I’m handing the reins over to the subject matter expert: my wife. Patience certainly isn’t an easy thing to come by, especially when your child is having the inevitable breakdown.
We play a lot of ‘I Spy’. We also talk in whisper voices like everything is a special secret. We see who can find the first starfish or giant hermit crab in the water while dad looks for the fish. When the fit does start up, and boy will it ever, just remember, kids, are not receptive when they are crying. Wait for them to stop crying before even trying to solve the problem.
My go-to is “as soon as you’re done crying I will be happy to help you ‘xyz’”. It probably won’t work the first time, but they eventually figure it out. Also, remember you change far more behavior by praising the good than punishing the bad. This can range from phrases such as, “I really liked the way you waited for your dad to help you with the lid of the bait well. You are very patient.” To “Good job keeping the rod tip out of the water.” Or “thank you for being a good listener”. It’s all about noticing and celebrating the little victories. Bottom line is: it has resulted in more fish and great times than anything else I can think of.
I hope this perspective gives parents and future parents some useful info and cuts down on the fear of taking your kiddos out on the ocean. Be a responsible mentor for the future generation and enjoy your time with them on the water. I can’t think of any other better place to be able to pass information to receptive minds. There is a lot of history, culture, and lessons to be learned on the water. Teach them what it means to be an angler and a custodian of our waters and nature. Teach them to pick up trash and always leave a place better than when you arrived.
Learn to be patient and accept there will be broken rods, fleeing fish, screaming, crying, mental break downs by both you and your child…the list goes on. Ultimately, you’re building and investing in a life long fishing buddy and ensuring the next generation is taking care of our environment and natural resources the way it’s supposed to be done.